Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawi Vanguard

The New Republic published a fascinating piece last week. I read it over the weekend and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the Arab Spring, the Syrian regime and Middle East turbulence.

Theo Padnos chronicles Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian police state on The New Republic‘s website. It is an enlightening read that explains why Syria’s dictator will likely hold onto power despite the upheaval that’s hit his country in the Arab Spring’s aftermath.

Assad, like his father, is an Alawite ruler in charge of a Sunni country. Syria’s population exceeds 25 million people: 22 million are Sunni while only 3 million are Alawis.  So who are the Alawis and why does this distinction matter in Syria today?

Padnos gives a great description of historic Alawism:

if you’re looking for a pleasant religion that harmonizes with the natural elements, this is the faith for you.

Alawis believe all humans were once stars, that by a seven-step process of metempsychosis, a pious soul can regain his place in the Milky Way and that impious souls come back as animals. Alawis celebrate the Zoroastrian holiday Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring, and sometimes celebrate Christmas. It’s not very Islamic to drink wine. It’s very un-Islamic to read esoteric meanings into the Koran. Alawis use wine in their rituals and believe that the manifest meaning of the Koran (and the Sharia) is a veil that covers truer, deeper meanings. Traditionally, Alawis have not built mosques but have rather prayed in the family home, or out of doors. They are said to worship the sun and the moon because these are aspects of the divine; the air, because god has dispersed himself into the ether; the stars, because one’s ancestors abide there; and the fourth Caliph, Ali, because he is the patron of their sect.

That’s interesting enough, but one cannot easily understand what Alawis today believe because, as Padnos writes, no outsider knows. Since the 1970s, they have congregated among Sunni Muslims and do not seek to proselytize outsiders. Alawite leaders choose whom to bring into the faith, i.e. deciding which male son of an existing Alawite shall learn the tenants of the faith.

On the street, one can tell no discernable difference between an Alawi and a Sunni. Alawis go to the mosque with Sunnis and pray to Mecca just as Sunnis do.

This dramatic change in Alawism occurred under President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez. Padnos says Hafez al-Assad is directly responsible for negating the Alawis public expression of faith.

Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, and like his son, controlled a Sunni majority country. He decided to use the Alawis as a vanguard to consolidate his rule. Alawis should assume the religious practices of the Sunnis, Assad proclaimed.

This declaration made the Alawis invisible to the untrained eye. It also made the group a vital part of the Assad regime, which has remained in power for four decades. Alawis kept tags on Muslim imams during Friday prayers. Anytime an imam got out of line-e.g.,  started talking about political reform rather than emphasizing the Koran-word got back to the Assads. The cleric was informed that he could relinquish his position and quietly retire or face the horrors of a Syrian prison.

The world saw how brutal the Assad regime was in 1981, when unrest broke out across the country. Hafez al-Assad killed Syrians with impunity; he mowed down (perhaps) 40,000 to quell the protests.

The Arab Spring brought similar upheaval to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria in 2011. People wanted reform and were fed up with authoritarian rule. The son has reacted just as his father did, slaughtering his people in an effort to maintain power. The façade he created for himself-that of a Western educated doctor with a pretty English wife and a “reform” agenda- was shattered. Fortunately for him, the Alawi vanguard has remained loyal to the regime despite the revolts breaking out across Syria.

Others support the Assads too: Kurds and Christians-fearful of sectarian violence against them if Assad falls- still favor their ruler.

So far Assad has kept his power base. The international community has looked on at the violence and largely ignored it. Proclamations condemn the violence, but no one has talked about military action to end it. No one will, either.

This means Bashar al Assad will hold onto power. What this portends for the future is anyone’s guess.

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